2020-21 32×32: MEAC Preview

The MEAC became one of the stories of the offseason in college basketball thanks to the splash commitment of Makur Maker at Howard. For years, analysts have wondered if big-name Black athletes would begin to choose HBCUs for their year in school. That finally happened with Maker, who rewarded Kenneth Blakeney’s dogged recruiting efforts by choosing the Bison. But the pattern doesn’t just show up with Maker: several transfers from high-major leagues that could have chosen traditionally better programs are headed to the league. This talent influx is good for the MEAC, and it’s good for college basketball.

NOTE: Bethune-Cookman has opted out of the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 concerns. They will not be included in the preview.

NOTE #2: The MEAC has gone to a divisional model for this season due to COVID-19. I built these rankings based on a simple power ranking of the league.

  1. North Carolina Central – With all the movement and excitement around the conference in the last several months thanks to some high-profile newcomers, it’s easy to forget the stranglehold LeVelle Moton has had on this conference in recent years. I don’t expect that to change in 2020-21, despite the graduation of star forward Jibri Blount. Blount was a matchup nightmare in the MEAC thanks to his ability to attack the rim or hit perimeter shots at 6-7, while also opening up some small-ball possibilities thanks to his rebounding prowess. But even without Blount, this is a team loaded with aggressive guards who love to get downhill. CJ Keyser leads that charge, a dynamic athlete who finishes extremely well at the rim and picks his spots well from deep. Experienced ballhandlers like Jordan Perkins and Ty Graves also help round out the backcourt, though Perkins needs to clean up the turnovers from a season ago. Moton’s defense as a whole does a terrific job taking the ball away, which helps lead to open opportunities in transition. To solidify things on the glass, a steady season from JUCO import Nehemie Kabeya (College of Southern Idaho) would be big. Kabeya posted impressive numbers on the boards in JUCO and has great size at 6-10.

  2. Morgan State – Unsurprisingly, Kevin Broadus is bringing in talent in droves to Morgan State. Following a 15-16 year one, Broadus adds a trio of talented transfers to the mix as well as former Florida State commit Naseem Khaalid as he looks to build a program in Baltimore. Two waiver requests will determine just how high this team’s ceiling is: Sharone Wright (Wake Forest) and De’Torrion Ware (Jacksonville State) would both be impact players on the wing if eligible this season, while Cincinnati transfer Trevor Moore awaits a waiver to determine whether he’ll be eligible in the first semester. All three bring high-level athleticism to the table for a team that plays fast and aggressive on both ends. Last season’s main failing was an inability to take care of the ball: the Bears were 341st nationally in turnover rate a season ago. That’s where Khaalid needs to make an immediate impact. Versatile forward Troy Baxter’s rim protection skills should continue to come in handy in making this defense one of the better units in the league, and he’s probably the best matchup in the conference for Howard’s Makur Maker thanks to his length and athleticism.

  3. Howard – No HBCU in recent history will have as much buzz as Howard in 2020-21 thanks to the high-profile addition of 5-star prospect Makur Maker. Kenneth Blakeney winning the Maker sweepstakes took college basketball by a storm and was a massive step towards changing the narrative around HBCU basketball. So will the addition of Maker guarantee success in the MEAC? I’m not sure. Maker joins a program that was in the midst of a rebuild and was quite frankly one of the worst teams in the country last season. And for all that’s tantalizing about the playmaking skills that Maker packs into his 7-foot frame, he’s still a raw talent who drew questions about his motor during his high school career. Expect HU to get him the ball in all kinds of ways, often allowing him to initiate offense or grab-and-go off rebounds to push in transitions. Can the talent around him step up? A waiver for Purdue transfer Nojel Eastern would be massive – Eastern was a key part of an Elite 8 team in West Lafayette and would be a major matchup problem in the MEAC. Eastern’s inability to shoot the ball plagued offensive spacing at Purdue, but he’d simply able to out-physical people when driving to the rim at a lower level of ball. Eastern is also an elite defender and a guy who has won games at the high-major level – that experience would be valuable for this young team. Without him, filling out a rotation will be a challenge. Optimism is high about freshman forward Jordan Wood, and sophomore guard Wayne Bristol flashed significant promise in his first year on campus.

  4. North Carolina A&T – Will Jones earning the full-time post at the helm of the NC A&T program was well-deserved after captaining the Aggies to a 12-4 MEAC mark in 2019-20. Jones did it with tempo, racheting up the pace from one of the slower units in the league the prior season under Jay Joyner to the fastest in the conference (and top 10 nationally). The engine that makes it all go is point guard Kameron Langley, one of the more unique players in the country who was second nationally in assist rate and got to the free throw line in bunches but made just three triples all season. Langley is on pace to finish in the top 25 all time in NCAA history in assists. The multiple-ballhandler looks Jones trotted out with Langley and Tyler Maye really helped ramp up the pace, and the addition of well-traveled PG Blake Harris (second semester eligible, seeking waiver) could help speed things up even more. Harris is lightning-quick but hasn’t always been efficient enough on offense during his time at the high-major level. Offensive efficiency remains the biggest question overall for this club: this was a team that finished 335th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted offense a season ago and loses by far its most efficient scorer in big man Ronald Jackson.

  5. Norfolk State – Robert Jones has done a fantastic job year in and year out at Norfolk State, and the Spartans should remain competitive despite a few key graduations from last year’s squad. Jones hit the grad transfer market for a pair of plug-and-play pieces in Mustafa Lawrence (Fresno State) and JJ Matthews (Arkansas State). Lawrence heads to his fourth school in four years after stops at Missouri State, JUCO, and Fresno, but he brings a scoring acumen that will be valuable given the graduation of Jermaine Bishop. Meanwhile, Lawrence spent much of his time at Arkansas State in foul trouble, but he’s a productive scorer on the block with great size at 6-9 who should be an excellent MEAC player. Add that duo to returners like Joe Bryant and DeVante Carter, and NSU should be in business once again. The only real disappointment that Nate Tabor appears unlikely to make it to campus… once a top-100 recruit and St John’s commit, Tabor popped to Norfolk this spring but isn’t currently on the team’s published roster. He would have been an impact guy for Jones’ club.

  6. Coppin State – Juan Dixon’s steady rebuild at Coppin State continues into year four with perhaps his best roster yet. A pair of excellent returners in Koby Thomas (13 points, 7 rebounds) and Dejuan Clayton (12 points, 3.5 assists) is a great place to start, and Dixon adds a trio of impact newcomers in Anthony Tarke (UTEP), Justin Steers (JUCO), and Chereef Knox (St Joe’s). Tarke was a terrific player at NJIT before struggling to earn minutes in El Paso, but is a high-level athlete with the ability to handle the ball and hit shots who should be an all-conference-caliber MEAC player, while Steers had a strong freshman season at Coppin for Dixon before spending last season at JUCO and returning. Knox was a very strong high school player who can play multiple positions and does the little things. The loss of Brendan Medley-Bacon to VCU hurts, he was the one true center left on the roster and a matchup challenge at 7-1. Small-ball with Steers and Thomas anchoring the middle might be an option with all this newfound wing depth.

  7. Florida A&M – Dynamic two-way guard MJ Randolph is a good start for Robert McCullum’s bunch as the Rattlers look to follow up last season’s 10-6 MEAC finish in a positive way. Randolph is one of the better players in the league, a terrific slasher on the wing who loves to draw contact. He’s also a playmaker on the defensive end, capable of getting steals and turning them into easy buckets on the other end. The primary area of concern is a defense that was simply too easy to score on inside. Evins Desir is a bruiser who causes matchup troubles on offense, but his lack of mobility is an issue on the defensive end. Too often FAMU would sell out for steals and run teams off the three point line before getting hammered thanks to poor paint defense. That’s an area that absolutely has to improve for this group to compete for a conference title.

  8. Delaware State – Eric Skeeters’ team loves to turn on the jets, ranking 5th nationally in tempo last season per KenPom. We’ll see if they can clean up their play on both ends and do more with that pace in 2020-21, though the graduation of talented point guard John Crosby is without a doubt a hurdle. Omari Peek-Green is a guy worth building around after averaging 8 points and 4 rebounds per game as a freshman, and I’m also excited about the return of D’Marco Baucum, who missed last season but was productive in 2018-19. But the big addition is Tennessee transfer big man Zach Kent, who couldn’t get much run for the Vols but was a top-200 recruit out of high school who could be one of the better big men in this conference.

  9. South Carolina State – This is a young SC State team after graduating six seniors from the rotation a season ago. The highest-profile loss is that of Damani Applewhite, a multitalented 6-8 forward who made his living at the free throw line. Applewhite was in the top 10 nationally in free throw rate and singlehandedly spurred this Bulldog offense at times. Rayshawn Neal’s early departure also hurts: Neal was the team’s 3rd-leading scorer and starting point guard last season, but will complete his career at D2 Shaw. Look for a big season from JUCO import Brandynn Manning, who should have the ball in his hands early and often.

  10. Maryland-Eastern Shore – Jason Crafton’s rebuild at UMES is going to take some time, and it’s hard to see the big turnaround coming this year. Quite simply, there’s a dearth of offensive talent on this roster, with the Hawks just not having enough guys capable of creating a shot at the D1 level to win games. Building around young talent like Da’Shawn Phillip, Bruce Guy, and Glen Anderson along with freshman Jair Currie should be the model, with the hope that sooner rather than later the Hawks can climb the ladder.

All-Conference First Team:

  • CJ Keyser (NC Central)
  • Kameron Langley (NC A&T)
  • Koby Thomas (Coppin)
  • MJ Randolph (FAMU)
  • Makur Maker (Howard)

Player of the Year: Makur Maker – Team context is always critical in evaluating player of the year candidates. Not only will Maker be the most talented player in the conference, he’s also likely to be the highest-usage player in the conference. Every game will be the Maker show, with the 7-footer freed up to create with the ball for himself and others. It will be interesting to see how it translates to wins (getting help from an Eastern waiver would be huge), but every game will certainly be a must-watch.

Breakout Player: Omari Peek-Green (Delaware State) – My original choice before Bethune-Cookman canceled its season was sophomore sniper Joe French, but I switched gears to go with another promising youngster in Peek-Green. The 6-6 wing was productive as a freshman, shooting 37% from 3 and flashing the ability to get to the rim as well. Expect him to take on a bigger role in the offense with ball-dominant point guard John Crosby having graduated.  

Newcomer of the Year: Makur Maker

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